Defenseman Aaron Ekblad and forward Connor McDavid were teammates on the Canadian National Junior Team for nearly two weeks during the recently completed 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship in Malmo, Sweden.
Now it's time to resume regular duty for their respective Ontario Hockey League teams as opponents when Ekblad of the Barrie Colts meets McDavid of the Erie Otters on Thursday night at the Barrie Molson Centre.
Ekblad is considered to be the best defenseman available in the 2014 NHL Draft at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, June 27-28. Partnered with Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Derrick Pouliot for much of the tournament, Ekblad had one goal, one assist and eight shots.
He is an A-rated skater on NHL Central Scouting's December players to watch list and has 10 goals and 25 points in 29 games with Barrie.
McDavid, who turns 17 on Jan. 13, could very well be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft. He was only the sixth 16-year-old to play for Canada at the World Junior Championship, joining Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros, Jason Spezza, Jay Bouwmeester and Sidney Crosby.
McDavid finished the 11-day event with one goal and four points in seven games. He generated 10 shots on goal. In 31 games with Erie, he has 12 goals, 50 points and a plus-22 rating.
"When Connor was going through his exceptional-player status, we texted a lot," Ekblad told NHL.com. "Connor McDavid is second to none. A lot of guys will compare him to Crosby, but I'd like to say he's his own player. He's got the puck on a string when he goes up and down the ice; an unbelievable skater and his vision is crazy good."
Does he feel there is a rivalry between the two players?
"I don't think we have ever seen it as a rivalry; me and Connor have been good friends for a really long time," Ekblad said. "We have a lot of fun when we play against each other even though it doesn't happen very often."
The teams will meet one more time in Erie on Feb. 14. Ekblad was asked how he would handle McDavid if the young forward were bearing down on him, one-on-one.
"Patience is the biggest thing," he said. "A lot of times it doesn't really matter who the player is coming down on you. You have to respect them and be patient, knowing they can make a move at any time. When Connor is coming down, I'll look at his chest, keep my hands and head up, and make sure my stick is on the puck. He'll never get around me."
Canada coach Brett Sutter was asked about the play of Ekblad during the tournament. He praised Ekblad's willingness to learn from his mistakes and his attentiveness to detail.
"He's an elite-level player for a young man," Sutter said. "He's a strong guy and he understands the game. At the same time there are young kid's mistakes when you're playing at this level that are going to happen, but he learns from it. He's an intelligent player and he picks things up pretty quickly. You don't have to tell him twice."
WJC PLAYERS IN TOP PROSPECTS GAME
Five players who starred overseas in the 2014 World Juniors from the Canadian Hockey League will be participating in the 19th annual BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in Calgary on Jan. 15.
Each player is an A-rated prospect on NHL Central Scouting's December players to watch list for the 2014 draft.
Ekblad of Barrie in the OHL and forward Samuel Reinhart of the Kootenay Ice in the Western Hockey League played key roles for fourth-place Canada. Reinhart, who had two goals, five points and a plus-3 rating in a top-six role for Sutter, will play for Team Cherry. Ekblad, who will suit up for Team Orr, had one goal and two points in his first WJC tournament.
Center Ivan Barbashev of the Moncton Wildcats in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League chipped in with one goal, one assist and a plus-1 rating in seven games for bronze medal-winning Russia. He'll play for Team Cherry. Defenseman Julius Honka of the WHL's Swift Current Broncos starred for gold medalist Finland, notching one assist and generating nine shots in a top-six role.
Center Leon Draisaitl of the WHL's Prince Albert Raiders racked up a tournament-high 52 penalty minutes and was suspended one game for Germany. The 6-foot-1, 209-pound Team Orr member did play a big part in Germany's best-of-three relegation round series victory against Norway to finish with two goals and six points.
A SHINING REPLACEMENT
The fact forward Laurent Dauphin of the Chicoutimi Sagueneens was the last replacement player added to the 2013 CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in Halifax certainly didn't deter him from making a huge impression.
That's precisely the attitude that defenseman Jacob Middleton of the Ottawa 67's will likely take as a replacement for Nelson Nogier (Saskatoon Blades) at the 2014 Top Prospects Game in Calgary on Jan. 15.
A 17-year-old from Stratford, Ontario, Middleton is a C-rated skater on NHL Central Scouting's December players to watch list from the OHL. He's in his second season with the 67's after being chosen No. 8 by the team in the 2012 OHL Priority Selection.
Nogier, a B-rated prospect from the WHL, is unable to participate due to season-ending shoulder surgery.
Dauphin, a 6-foot, 166-pound left wing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, had one goal and one assist to earn player of the game honors for Team Orr in a 3-0 victory over Team Cherry. He was ultimately chosen in the second round (No. 39) by the Phoenix Coyotes last June. The Coyotes dealt two later picks in the 2013 draft to gain the New Jersey Devils' second pick in the second round to draft Dauphin.
Middleton will follow Ottawa 67's alum Sean Monahan, who participated in the event last season before being selected No. 6 by the Calgary Flames. The 6-2.75, 208-pound left-hander has one goal, 13 points and 40 penalty minutes in 37 games for the 67's in 2013-14.
Last year's Top Prospects Game featured 19 players selected in the first round of the 2013 draft, including Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado Avalanche). MacKinnon, who leads all NHL rookies with 26 points, was the 11th player in the past 18 years to be selected No. 1 after competing in the Top Prospects Game.
COACHING CHANGE ANNOUNCEMENT
Calgary native and Flames' Stanley Cup champion Tim Hunter was announced as a replacement head coach for Team Orr at the Top Prospects Game.
Hunter was previously named a member of the Team Cherry coaching staff but will replace Lanny McDonald behind the bench for Team Orr. McDonald is unable to participate for personal reasons.
Hunter played two seasons in the WHL with the Seattle Breakers from 1978-80 and was selected by the Atlanta Flames in the third round of the 1979 draft. He played 815 career NHL games over 16 seasons including 545 games in 11 seasons with his hometown Flames, winning the Stanley Cup in 1989.
He has spent 14 seasons as an NHL assistant coach, most recently with the Washington Capitals in 2012-13.
Additionally, Flames' Stanley Cup champion Mark Hunter has been added as an assistant coach for Team Cherry. The general manager of the OHL's London Knights played 628 NHL games over 12 seasons, including 133 games with the Flames from 1988-91.
The Canadian Hockey League also added Sportsnet hockey analysts Nick Kypreos and Doug MacLean as bench assistants for the second straight year. Kypreos will be assisting Team Cherry and MacLean will join Team Orr.
PROSPECTS ON THE RISE
1. Jacob Middleton, Ottawa 67's (OHL): The second-year defenseman was added as a replacement for Saskatoon Blades defender Nelson Nogier (shoulder) for Team Cherry at the Top Prospects Game. In two seasons, Middleton has two goals and 18 points in 66 games. He has one goal and 13 points in 37 games this season.
"He's a good package of size, strength and skating," NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr told NHL.com. "He has good containment in his own zone but is most effective when he's playing with a physical component. He makes good decisions at the offensive blue line and has a good point shot."
2. Ryan MacInnis, Kitchener Rangers (OHL): The 6-3.5, 185-pound left-handed center has 10 goals and 23 points in 39 games as a rookie with the Rangers this season. He doesn't have the shot of his dad, defenseman Al MacInnis, who spent 23 seasons in the League with the St. Louis Blues and Calgary Flames, and compares his style to Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn.
MacInnis, a B-rated prospect on Central Scouting's December players to watch list from the OHL, will also participate in the Top Prospects Game.
"Responsible two-way center with a very good hockey IQ; he sees the ice and anticipates very well to generate scoring chances," Marr said. "He's a good playmaker but just needs to work on his shot and shoot more often."
3. Sam Lafferty, Deerfield Academy (HIGH-MA): Deerfield coach Brendan Creagh believes the 6-1, 178-pound left wing has what it takes to become a pro player. The left-handed shooter is a C-rated skater on NHL Central Scouting's December players to watch list among high school players in the United States.
"He has the work ethic," Creagh told NHL.com. "I have never coached a kid more willing to make the sacrifices to improve. If he wants it, he'll put in the work."
Lafferty, who will attend Brown University in 2014-15, has seven goals and 24 points in nine games at the Massachusetts prep school. He considers himself a good skater with good vision on the ice.
"I like his skill package; he's a nice skater with nice puck skills," Central Scouting's Greg Rajanen said. "He looks like he has a lot of potential."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL
SEAMUS MALONE: DRAFT DANDY OF THE WEEK
Center Seamus Malone of Naperville, Ill., has already established a career high for goals in a season with the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League.
The University of Wisconsin recruit, a B-rated skater on NHL Central Scouting's December players to watch list from the USHL, leads the league with three shorthanded goals and is tied for sixth with three game-winning goals. In 23 games for the Fighting Saints this season, the 5-foot-9.25, 165-pound left-handed shot has a team-high 10 goals, along with 19 points and a plus-9 rating. He's second on the team with four power-play goals.
Earlier in the season, Malone centered the top line alongside Brett Boeing (Michigan Tech University) and Karson Kuhlman (University of Minnesota-Duluth), a C-rated prospect on Central Scouting's list. More recently, he's shared a line with Jarrid Privitera and Robby Darrar (University of Vermont). Privitera is second on the team with 20 points (six goals).
As a rookie in 2012-13, Malone had six goals, 27 points and a plus-12 rating in 50 games.
"Seamus Malone is a skilled player; he darts in and out and is a solid in the open ice," Central Scouting's Greg Rajanen told NHL.com. "Seamus has some bite to his game and is very strong on the power play."
Malone describes himself as a smart, skilled forward who can play "with a controlled edge and take pride in both zones."
"I think the thing Seamus will have to prove is that he's a skilled guy," Central Scouting's David Gregory said. "The puck comes off his stick so quickly, he's going to score goals."
Favorite NHL team: Chicago Blackhawks
NHL player: Jonathan Toews
Shootout move: "Forehand, backhand, five-hole."
Goal celebration: "Jumping into the boards with a packed crowd."
Video game: Call of Duty
Actor or Actress: Denzel Washington
Following on Twitter: Paul Bissonnette
Music: Hip-hop, Rap
Three you would invite to dinner: Miley Cyrus, Kate Upton, Patrick Kane
Sport (other than hockey): Golf
Breakfast food: Breakfast burrito
-- Mike G. Morreale
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